Come, friendly asteroids, and fall on Slough, as John Betjeman did not quite write. But space rocks can do far worse damage than mere bombs, as the Earth knows very well from its deep history. Greg Brennecka’s Impact: How Rocks from Space Led to Life, Culture, and Donkey Kong (William Morrow, £28.99) is an enjoyably nerdy guide to our age-old batterings and the measures we are hastily taking to avoid the next big one. (Happily, the success of Nasa’s recent Dart – Double Asteroid Redirection Test – mission confirmed that we can deflect the trajectory of asteroids by smashing spaceships into them.) Brennecka ranges from the quasi-piratical international trade in meteorites to intriguing historical arguments. Was St Paul’s road-to-Damascus moment caused by an exploding meteor? We shall never know.
The largest-known asteroid impact on Earth is the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but that is a mere pit stop on Thomas Halliday’s evocative journey into planetary history in Otherlands (Allen Lane, £20). Each chapter of this literary time machine takes us further back into the deep past, telling vivid stories about ancient creatures and their alien ecologies, until at last we arrive 550 million years ago in the desert of what is now Australia, where no plant life yet covers the land. Halliday notes the urgency of reducing carbon emissions in the present to protect our settled patterns of life, but adds: “The idea of a pristine Earth, unaffected by human biology and culture, is impossible.” It’s an epic lesson in the impermanence of all things.
Among the oldest non-aquatic species still going is the humble wasp, first found in the fossil record in the Jurassic, where it presumably annoyed dinosaurs such as the Allosaurus and Stegosaurus. The wasp has, though, got a bad rap from humans, at least according to professional wasp-fancier Seirian Sumner. Her Endless Forms (William Collins, £20) happily describes wasps’ remarkable ingenuity in torturing their prey, and shows that they are not only cleverer than we assume, but ecologically useful, too. Although the wasp is its star, the book is also a fascinating general field guide to the work of the modern naturalist.
Journeying back further into the past, until it is not even “the past” because time itself does not yet exist, is theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton. Her pleasantly hypothetical Before the Big Bang (Bodley Head, £20) tackles the age-old cosmological question of how and why the Big Bang, in which our universe was born, ever happened in the first place. According to her theory, there already existed a “quantum landscape multiverse” in which lots of tiny bubble-universes were simmering away. But where did that come from? Perhaps we shall never discover. Yet we can still draw comfort from Mersini-Houghton’s explanation of multiverse physics, according to which every time you do something very embarrassing, there is an exact copy of you in another universe who doesn’t.
This might be especially consoling in a world (ours) where embarrassing behaviour is under constant surveillance from our own addictive gadgets, as well as publicly deployed face-recognition systems, with further experiments in the mood-tracking of shoppers and other dystopian wheezes. According to the human rights lawyer Susie Alegre in Freedom to Think (Atlantic, £20) – a pugnacious argument about technology, law and culture – such modern innovations harm our liberty in ways comparable to historic CIA mind-control experiments or the mid-century craze for lobotomy. As she tells her own daughter, when explaining why she won’t buy her an Amazon Echo device: “It is because Alexa steals your dreams and sells them.”
Reaching into our minds in a more physical way was the job of neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, bestselling author of Do No Harm. His autumnal memoir, And Finally (Jonathan Cape, £16.99), sees the brain-fiddler in retirement, and becoming a patient himself following a diagnosis of prostate cancer. Marsh shares his journey with a dark yet whimsical humour, and ponders too the eternal mysteries of time.
Cancer is the speciality of another bestselling medic, Siddhartha Mukherjee: as he recounts in his latest book, The Song of the Cell (Bodley Head, £25), his favourite part of the working week is the Monday mornings he gets to spend looking at blood samples under a microscope. This giant work of synthesis tells the story of how life first got organised in the form of cells (so called because they reminded early-modern microscopists of monks’ living quarters), and explains how modern medicine is attempting to exploit and change the way our cells function, through immunotherapy, gene editing and so forth, to cure formerly intractable diseases.
In a world stuffed with dangers of all scales, from microbial plagues to planet-smashing asteroids, might it be reassuring to know that we are all just software programs running on some vast alien computer simulation? The eminent Australian philosopher David J Chalmers addresses such sci-fi possibilities in Reality+ (Allen Lane, £25). Whether we are trapped in the Matrix or in Mark Zuckerberg’s promised Metaverse, questions of what is real and how we might still lead flourishing lives are here discussed in mind-bending yet lucid fashion. The good news, according to Chalmers, is that a table made from digital ones and zeroes (if we are in VR or a simulation) is just as real as a table made from quantum wave-packets (assuming we live in the real world). That is, until a rock falls on it from space.
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